Ground control to high school class

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

It wasn’t exactly a space oddity, but it was an unusual day for a class of Montreal high school students when they connected to a NASA field station in Antarctica via live satellite feed in February.

McGill microbiologist Lyle Whyte examines the extreme temperatures at which microbial life survives and his research usually takes him to the Canadian high Arctic but on this day, he was bringing a piece of the South Pole to a classroom in Montreal.

Working with scientists at the NASA field station in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, Whyte brought a live satellite feed of the station to the classroom to show students how a drill draws soil samples from the Antarctic permafrost — a demonstration of how the drill might someday draw samples from the frozen surface of Mars.

The IceBreaker drill is designed to operate in cold environments without lubrication and has taken 10 years to perfect.

“There is water in the soil,” Whyte explains, “and when the drill pushes down, it spins and generates heat.” When it stops spinning, it refreezes and the drill core — the bit — gets stuck.

The students remotely operated the IceBreaker drill by deciding how fast the drill should spin and how much pressure it should exert. In Antarctica, scientist Margarita Maranova collected the samples for analysis. These samples will provide a baseline for comparison with samples eventually collected from Mars. For now, she says, the samples allow us ”to understand where the limits for life are.”

Click below to watch. (Link opens on the Discovery Channel site.)


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